Go ahead and watch "Almighty Debt," the latest offering in CNN's Black in America series, which premieres on Oct. 21, if you have 90 minutes to spend on a distraction from your own financial troubles while rubbernecking at someone else's.
But if you're too busy trying to free yourself from the clutches of predatory lenders, land steady employment or pay for college, budget your time accordingly. CNN tends to air its Black in America specials with astounding frequency, so the latest episode doesn't qualify as "appointment" viewing anyway.
In her third trip to the Black in America trough, series host Soledad O'Brien focuses on a progressive Baptist church in New Jersey, First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, where the recession has hit the congregation hard in terms of unemployment, home foreclosures and insufficient funds for higher education. O'Brien earnestly attempts to present a condensed portrait of desperation that plagues households nationwide.
The result, for the most part, would hold up well under the scrutiny of any reality-TV aficionado: It's replete with all of the dramatic tension and evocative imagery required to hold the viewer's attention. Some characters are more compelling than others, and the stories could be woven together better, but at least they tend to move along at a brisk clip.
Unfortunately for those thirsting for salvation from the economic calamity that's draining Americans' patience, however, "Almighty Debt" serves up only a trickle of guidance. The special gives sweeping references to faith, hope, prayer and timely intervention from a committed pastor as blacks' sole source of redemption in this time of fiscal crisis. But the stories surrounding a trio of families who attend one particular church aren't remarkably different from sad tales that Americans of any ethnicity could share.
Far from being a primer on the debt solutions that many blacks sorely need, "Almighty Debt " is a more like a white-knuckle ride through three desperate quests for quick fixes. Instead of providing facts and numerical figures about the way black households are disproportionately crippled by the current recession, "Almighty Debt" focuses on excerpts from heartfelt sermons by the glue holding the broadcast together: the church's pastor, the Rev. DeForest Soaries.
Soaries, a protégé of Jesse Jackson's, entered the ministry reluctantly after years of employing more radical means of fighting urban blight. The message of "debt-free" living that he preaches to his congregation of about 7,000 is portrayed as a refreshing alternative to the "prosperity gospel" of certain mega-churches across the U.S. that the media generally treat with derision.
In a round-table chat with reporters after a preview of "Almighty Debt" last night in Atlanta, O'Brien said that her original intent had been to explore the black church's immense influence — both spiritually and financially — over worshippers. Soaries' outreach to overextended parishioners, O'Brien explained, narrowed the special's focus to an unexpected theme: Debt equates to slavery.
Whether or not that focus is too narrow remains a matter of opinion. But it also remains to be seen how well the viewing public will connect with the downtrodden cast of characters that "Almighty Debt" trails on their jagged roads to redemption. And as "Almighty Debt" points out, even the most devoted pastor can't shield his flock from the errors of their own ways, the woes of generational poverty or the cruel hand of fate.
The most sympathetic among those profiled is a laid-off insurance executive who tearfully watches his wife leave each morning for secretarial work while he applies futilely for jobs beneath his former pay grade.
In contrast, it's hard to feel pity for the couple who once wielded power in luxury automotive and real estate sales but have fallen two years behind on their mortgage. Even though they're broke, they won't deny themselves the joy of owning three BMWs, a homestead large enough to accommodate a tennis court and a swimming pool, and the dream of sending their spoiled teenage daughter to an Ivy League school.
And in stretches that stand out as awkwardly long and repetitive, "Almighty Debt" focuses on a penniless teen who pins all of his hopes on winning enough scholarship funding to study acting at an obscure East Coast college.
Given the disastrous economic condition of the black community, one wonders whether all of the resources CNN poured into this program during the seven months of filming, editing and marketing it wouldn't have been better spent compiling a comprehensive list of reliable job-search sites, academic-scholarship directories and mortgage-restructuring programs and scrolling them continuously for an hour and a half.
"Almighty Debt" proves there's no shortage of unfortunate circumstances to be endured if you're "Black in America." But if the franchise has a future, let's hope it strikes a better balance between strife and solutions.
A. Scott Walton is a reporter based in Atlanta.